Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Perils of Using Vile Language

The news is reporting that "relationship expert" Dr. Laura Schlessinger has decided to "retire" from her radio show when the contract is up at the end of the year. This comes on the heels of a recent controversy where she used the "N-word" 11 times in a short segment to make a point. I'm not fan of Dr. Laura, but I did listen to the clip and believe that the outrage was a little bit out of proportion. Its obvious to any listener that she was not calling anyone by that term, but stating her opinion about hearing that word on HBO, used by African Americans to one another in movies, music videos, and rap / hip hop songs. She, like many conservatives, don't like the "double standard" (the idea that a white person is not allowed to use it, while African Americans are free to use the word as much as they want).

There's a reason for this, though. The word has a vile history. It truly is an ugly word. There is no justification for people to use it. People often want to say that words are just words, but some words carry stigma because of how it was used or abused. It can't be helped. That's just the nature of a living language. I've seen first hand exactly the kind of pain this word can inflict on a person.

When I was in the Navy, stationed in Norfolk, Virginia in the mid-1990s, I had met a fellow church member who was also in the Navy (who became one of my best friends, Nathan). He was friends with an Army guy who was a white supremacist. I learned this fact when the three of us went to the Navy Exchange one day. While driving in the parking lot, Nathan didn't see a young African American lady in the crosswalk. His soldier friend yelled out, "Watch out for the nigger!" Since this was summer and Nathan's truck did not have air condition, we had our windows rolled down. The woman just stared at us and I could see the hurt and pain in her eyes. She obviously heard the comment. I was horrified and wanted to apologize to her. As she crossed in front of the truck, Nathan's friend continued, "You almost hit that nigger bitch!" Based on those two comments, I knew that I would not hang out with this guy anymore. There was no reason to use those terms to describe a person. And that's the thing, the lady was a human being. Racial epithets are designed to dehumanize a person. When a person is dehumanized, it makes it much easier for someone to override their natural born conscience and do atrocious things to them, as we've seen in My Lai, Vietnam; Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad; and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. If one sees another as a "gook", "spic", "raghead", "nigger", "cunt", or "injun", its a license for abuse.

During that period of my life, I actually ended a friendship with a "step-cousin" who was stationed in the area, because he kept using the n-word after I had asked him to stop. He tried to play it off by saying that he only calls cops that, but I wasn't buying it. I knew better because of who his mother was (my dad's older brother had married a divorced lady with six children in their teens in the 1980s and I became friends with a couple of the "step-cousins"). His mother has been known to make racist statements at various family gatherings, including her belief that a neighbourhood has the right to deny a house being sold to a person of a minority race if they want to keep their neighbourhood white. This view only increased her unpopularity in our family.

While I don't think its a sign of racism to use a word in the context of making a larger point, I thought Dr. Laura was widely off the mark in her "advice" to the African American lady who had called her show to get advice on her caucasian husband's friends who always seem to make her race a topic of discussion at gatherings, such as barbecues. The example given was that her husband's friend would ask her questions about why black people do such and such. That is inappropriate behaviour and the husband is not being a good husband by allowing his friends to make his wife feel uncomfortable and marginalized. Instead of giving useful advice, Dr. Laura wanted more examples of the kinds of things the caller's husband's friends say to her that make her feel uncomfortable. When they get into a debate about the use of the n-word, Dr. Laura accuses the caller of being "hyper-sensitive" and even more audaciously, said: "If you're that hypersensitive about color and don't have a sense of humor, don't marry outside of your race." What a moronic answer! Love is more complicated than that.

When I was at BYU, I fell for a lady from the Dominican Republic. Had she not been committed to her Mormon religion, I most likely would have pursued a deeper relationship leading to marriage with her. Whenever we spent time together, I never saw her skin colour being different than mine. She would be considered "black" in our country's racial category, though she would also be considered hispanic. People who saw us might have seen the stark contrast between our skin pigmentation, but from my vantage point, I only saw a beautiful woman who had everything I was looking for in a wife. Race was not an issue between us. Sadly, religion was the issue that could not be resolved. I don't think its "hyper-sensitive" to demand that other people treat you with respect and not as a spokesperson for your race or to be referred to by derogatory words that carry a weight of ugliness that goes back to our country's slavery era.

A few years ago, there was a media bruhaha about a speech in which the speaker had used the word "niggardly", which some people thought highly inappropriate because of its close proximity of the offensive word. They are completely different words, with different meanings, but it only shows the power of the sound of a certain word to make sound alike words also "offensive." Books have been written about the n-word and its ugly history. From my experience in the Navy, I never heard an officer use such a word. The only people I heard using it were the uneducated, grunt workers of the enlisted ranks...those whose AFQT score were too low to earn a rating speciality (guaranteed job assignment category). I've never been comfortable among people who use racist words, because as a "half-breed" myself, I've faced my share of racist comments since elementary school (the word "gook" is extremely vile to my ears. I can't tell you the feeling such a word evokes in me whenever I hear it, but its not a good one. Basically, if a person ever called me that, they would likely never earn back the respect I'd instantly lose for them).

In the excellent film A Time to Kill (based on John Grisham's first novel), one of my favourite scenes is when Samuel L. Jackson tells Matthew McConaughey's young, idealistic and Southern liberal lawyer: "When you look at me, you don't see a man. You see a BLACK man." The "birthers" who obsess over President Obama's Kenyan heritage and claim that he's not an American citizen are likely racist because of their inability to accept Obama's unique background and quintessential "only in America" biography. At one of the World Affairs Council discussion groups I attended a few months ago, we had an interesting discussion about how African Americans tend to be disappointed when they travel to Africa. To many, its a spiritual "homecoming" and that can be euphoric, for awhile. But also in such a journey, they learn that the Africans don't see African Americans as "African". To their life experience, these black visitors are American, first and foremost.

For much of our country's history, there have been attempts to keep African Americans from being full citizens, starting with the 3/5ths compromise in the U.S. Constitution. The Southern states wanted to include their slaves for the census in order to boost the population, yet they didn't want them to be considered citizens with the right to vote, to be free, and to be paid for their labours. This continued through the Civil Rights era, when schools were integrated by way of National Guard troops sent to keep the peace, to the current teabagger rallies with signs comparing our first African American president to Adolf Hitler (the man who was so digusted by Jesse Owens Gold medal winning track and field performance at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games that he refused to watch the medal ceremony) or the Joker (from The Dark Knight movie), which is a twist on the racist "blackface" of the Minstrel Show era of the 1950s.

The point in all of this is that time and time again, African Americans are always having to defend their status as American. It shouldn't take a disappointing trip to Africa for African Americans to finally realize that they are Americans, first and foremost. When white Americans go to Europe for vacation, they know that our culture is vastly different from European culture, even though we trace our ancestry to the old continent.

In the controversial segment, Dr. Laura actually said to the caller: "Don't you NAACP me!" I thought this line was hilarious. It immediately made me think of the Michael Jackson song "They Don't Care About Us" when the King of Pop sang these controversial lyrics: "Jew me, sue me, everybody do me; kick me, kike me, don't you black or white me..." What does Dr. Laura mean by "NAACP me"? Is she blaming them for launching a boycott of sponsors of her show?

By quitting, she's doing the Sarah Palin thing..."when the going gets tough, the tough get going." What a thin skin! She made ridiculous comments on her show and even though she apologized the next day, the fall out was too much that she decided not to renew her contract when it expires at the end of the year? At least she didn't use the word the way Mel Gibson had used the word. Context matters.

The reasons she gave for quitting sounded very Palinesque: "The reason is I want to regain my First Amendment rights. I want to be able to say what's on my mind and in my heart and what I think is helpful and useful without somebody getting angry, some special interest group deciding this is the time to silence a voice of dissent and attack affiliates, attack sponsors. I'm sort of done with that."

Before anyone calls her a "Quitter Queen", though, Dr. Laura emphasized that she is not retiring, but ending her radio program.

"I'm not retiring, I'm not quitting, I feel energized actually," she said. "Stronger and freer to say the things that I believe need to be said for people in this country."

I'm not buying that reason. Rush Limbaugh uses his radio program to spout all kinds of lies and propaganda. He doesn't care what people think of him or his views. It sounds like Dr. Laura's skin is every bit as thin as Sarah Palin, because the former half-term governor of Alaska also claims to be a passionate defender of the First (and Second) Amendments.

This episode with Dr. Laura automatically made me think of a beautiful song from the early 1980s, by Christopher Cross. Its "Think of Laura", and although its about the passing of a lady named Laura, when I listened to the lyrics, I was struck by how well the song fits Dr. Laura and her decision to quit radio. You gotta love the irony of it all! Enjoy!


Anonymous said...

Sansego, this is a timely and pertinent post. My husband has a nephew who was raised with husband and his siblings as a brother rather than a nephew. I'm not sure you would remember the TV show "ARCHIE BUNKER"? If you do, you remember how horribly racist, etc., the character AB was. Our nephew is a carbon copy, the difference being that the nephew was in the Air Force. Nephew is probably the most vocal racist with terrible prejudices I've ever known, and he throws those awful slurs around constantly. Early in my marriage he had dinner with us often, and ultimately one evening when he was on one of his verbal rampages, using the "n" word constantly, I finally quietly asked him to not that the word in my home. He persisted, and I eventually asked him to leave my home. At that point he became my lifetime nemesis and his barbs directed at me during family gatherings over the decades have been simply awful. They don't bother me. They are a reflection of the kind of person he is, and I try to avoid being around him. When I was in fifth grade, I met a girl who became one of my closest friends, and we remained close until she died when were both fifty. She was a lesbian, and as she grew up she experienced terrible inner conflicts between her lifestyle and her devout Christianity, because the pastors and other Christians convinced her that God didn't love her because she was a lesbian. Her parents sent her to Bob Jones University so that "Jesus could cure her of her sin". My friend, whose personality and appearance was identical to Carol Burnette, became president of her class, was voted Miss Spirit of Bob Jones, and had many other honors. She was an incredible human being. When Bob Jones Jr. discovered her "persuasion", quite by accident because it wasn't something she was at all blatant with, he called her into his office and told her she could remain on campus in school, but only if she went in front of the entire student body, announced her "sin" to them, and gave up all of her honors. An hour later her room-mate found her in the corner of their dormitory room, in a catatonic state. She spent the next three months in a mental hospital and was never the same in terms of her former hasppy and joyful self. This is what prejudice does. This is what racism does, It's a disease that destroys lives and destroys good people, and is probably the one trait among humanity I consider the most damaging and most hurtful. Your comments are dead-on, and I appreciate your candor. cj

Anonymous said...


Julie said...

@Anonymous Both your stories sadden me, especially the one about your friend!

As to the main post: If Sarah Palin claims to be a passionate supporter of the First Amendment, that seems a little ironic, seeing as she kept asking the Wasilla librarian what she'd think about banning some books, then fired her after she (the librarian) kept telling her the librarian would be against it.